PEOPLE lost a good friend last week with the death of Hedley Donovan, who was editor-in-chief of Time Inc. when this magazine was launched in 1974.
It was the first launch of a general-interest nationally circulated weekly in 20 years—a scary prospect. At least, as the founding managing editor, I was scared. The publishing landscape was littered with the carcasses of huge but failed national magazines: Collier’s, Saturday Evening Post, the biweekly Look and, most notably, LIFE (of which I was a survivor).
PEOPLE was an audacious undertaking, and in the tumult of its birth. Hedley Donovan was a man of towering calm and contagious confidence. Today, happily, this magazine is a great editorial and commercial success, but it was not always so. Our early months were difficult, sometimes bordering on desperate, as we struggled for advertising, circulation and an editorial mix of celebrities and ordinary people that would define the “personality journalism” we seemed to have invented.
PEOPLE was occasionally misunderstood as a gossip or fan magazine, but never by Hedley. He was consistently supportive, not an altogether easy task for a man of sharp intelligence and endless curiosity but whose acquaintanceship with most celebrities was tenuous.
Nonetheless he kept a sharp eye on our pages. He would often call me to his 34th-floor corner office to discuss a just-published issue. Hedley was a big man with a thatch of bristly gray hair, laser-blue eyes and a deep voice that seemed to rumble out of the plains of Minnesota, where he came from. Sitting across the desk from him as he leafed through the magazine, sometimes smiling, sometimes scowling and sometimes (worst of all) expressionless, was educational.
At one point, he noted that PEOPLE had apparently fallen in love with country music, which was true. He looked at our latest story, ruminated on extensive recent coverage and finally asked rather plaintively, “Dick, how many country singers are there?”
Occasionally Hedley would descend to the 29th-floor PEOPLE editorial offices to convey his congratulations on a story, especially one dealing with an area of special interest to him, such as Watergate. He was also a master of the trenchant but affectionate memo describing some editorial misdemeanor. Because the PEOPLE staff was young, most of them in their 20s, they rarely had any intimations of their own mortality and wrote that way.
A note from Hedley landed on my desk one morning. “Once more,” it said, “PEOPLE seems intent on affronting mature readers like Mr. Heiskell [Andrew Heiskell, chairman of the board] and myself.
“Zsa Zsa—the managing editor should look so good—is called an ‘aging beauty.’
“Omar Sharif, a mere 43, is described as an ‘aging boulevardier.’ Actually, beginners-slope training for a boulevardier does not even start until 50.”
From time to time, Hedley invited groups of PEOPLE editors and writers to have lunch with him, often on very short notice. The dress code at PEOPLE was if not raffish at least excessively informal. Male staff members who were abruptly summoned to the editor-in-chief’s private dining room often had to borrow jackets and ties from their more sartorial colleagues. Our rock-music writer even had to scrounge for a pair of shoes one memorable day; he had come to work in sandals. (I’m not sure Hedley ever heard that story, which is too bad. He would have enjoyed it a lot.)
In fact he always seemed to enjoy PEOPLE and its staff and its unique editorial mission a lot, although his own distinguished journalistic career had centered on politics and economics and world affairs. We liked and respected him immensely in return. He left all Time Inc. magazines a grand legacy of editorial quality and conscience. To this magazine in particular he bequeathed a son, Mark, one of our skilled senior editors, and a history of understanding, sympathy and support when we needed them most. In his memoirs last year, Hedley acknowledged the criticism that our stories sometimes provoked but added bluntly: “I found it utterly unembarrassing to head the PEOPLE masthead as editor-in-chief.”
We can be a little less statesmanlike. We found it an honor and a privilege to be listed on the masthead under Hedley Donovan.